My March Column – Full Text

Lord have mercy

Lord have mercy

In this jubilee Year of Mercy we are being encouraged to be merciful as God is merciful. This month I’d like to look more closely at that. How do we see God being merciful and is it possible for us to emulate Him? If you ask people how God is merciful you will get some surprising answers. Some people see God’s mercy in ways we didn’t imagine while others don’t think God is merciful at all.

Many people look at tragedies and decide that God is not being merciful. These might be personal tragedies such as sudden deaths or incurable illness. It is understandable that when we suffer the loss of a loved one we may feel that God is being unfair to us. “That’s not right” or “why should this happen to me” are typical responses in those situations. How can God be merciful when He allows someone to die young or to suffer a long illness?

Sometimes these things are taken a step further. If God is not merciful then He is not the God I believe  in, some will say. If that’s the case then I don’t believe in God anymore. You can see the train of thought but it’s not really logical. You can’t blame God for things and then not believe in Him because of what He does. If He does not exist then He can’t be blamed. Logically, then we can believe in a bad God who is not merciful. Does that make any sense?

I suppose it all boils down to people believing in a different God. We might like to believe in a God who will be looking out for us and making things work out the way we want. We can believe in a God who will always give us what we ask for. That is not the God of Abraham and Isaac. It’s not the one God. Perhaps we really believe in Santa Claus; a Santa Claus who doesn’t restrict his work to Christmas but is always on tap.

Sadly I don’t believe in Santa Clause. It’s true that God expects us to be childlike in many ways but He expects us to take an adult view of our faith. God gives us the gift of life. It is only a temporary gift in this world. It will be taken away and replaced with a better version. Is that cruel or merciful? Imagine you are driving a fifty year old Ferrari and God takes it away (sad) but replaces it with the latest model (delighted). Would you complain? That’s a silly question; some people would complain.

What I’m saying is that we have been given a life in this world and we are constricted by the physical laws of our universe. We can’t fly like superman and we don’t have X-Ray vision but we have been given much greater powers than the rest of creation. We are the only species that has the intelligence that enables to reshape our world. We have free will to choose how to behave. Sometimes we get it wrong. How does God behave when we get it wrong? He forgives us.

So, this year I’m going to try to be more like God. That might sound a bit pretentious. After all, God is the Supreme Being, all powerful and omnipresent. I’m not very powerful (not in our house anyway) and I’m only ever in one place at a time. How can I become more like God? How forgiving must I be?

Let’s see how forgiving Jesus was. When Peter asked him how many times he must forgive his brother Jesus’ answer must have surprised him.

Then Peter went up to him and said, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?”  As often as seven times? Jesus answered, “Not seven, I tell you but seventy seven times.”

Matthew 18:21,22


Seventy seven times is a great deal of forgiving but I don’t think it stops there. Jesus was not putting a limit of seventy seven times on forgiveness. It was His way of saying that we must just go on forgiving. I must say I can see Peter’s point. Having forgiven seven times I would expect the other person to get the message and stop whatever he was doing.

That’s where I’m falling down. How many times have I gone to confession and confessed the same sin? I can tell you it’s much more than seven times, probably more that seventy seven times. Each time Jesus gives His forgiveness.

How can we understand forgiveness like that? Jesus gives us the answer in the story of the prodigal son. The younger son is cheeky and feckless. He wants his inheritance while he is still young enough to enjoy spending it. That’s just what he does. He goes off and spends the lot on living the high life. When the money is gone he finds himself in a foreign country and is starving. He sees how wrong he was and returns to his father to ask to be a servant.

The father is watching out for him and goes to meet him. Everything is forgiven because he loves his son so much. The older brother who stayed and worked for the father gets annoyed because the son who returned is welcomed and he gets no recognition.

There are hard lessons here. Jesus is telling us that it is love that will enable us to forgive. It is in forgiving that we show our love for our neighbour. The younger brother does well in this story but the older brother feels hard done by. Where do you fit into this story? Are you the prodigal, happy to be forgiven or the older brother getting annoyed when sinners are forgiven? I think I’m the prodigal and if you are the older brother I ask your forgiveness also.

Long before this Jubilee Year of Mercy, forgiveness was a big issue for us. One of the first prayers we were taught was the Our Father. We say it at every mass, at the start of each decade of the rosary and it is often the prayer that unites Christians of different churches. However it must not be taken lightly. It is a dangerous prayer.

In the Our Father we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. Do we really want God to treat us in the same way we treat people who have ‘trespassed against us?’  That’s what we are saying. Perhaps the Year of Mercy has come along at just the right time for me. I have to think about how I treat other people, especially the ones who annoy me or actually harm me in some way. I might feel righteously aggrieved and feel I have every right to make them pay. Be that as it may, I must learn to forgive, even if it’s only so that God will forgive me in turn.

It’s a few months since my last confession and I’m going before Easter. I’m not going because I can earn forgiveness by going (although I find it very hard as someone who is always right to go and admit I’m often wrong) but I’m going to experience that great Love that God has for me just like the father for the prodigal.

Happy Easter.

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